Positively Mercer Street

Writing about playing poker with a writer famous for winning at poker? I'm in!

In my weekly poker game, which we've been having for five years now, we are all jealous of Positively Fifth Street author James McManus for several reasons. First of all, he's published four novels. Second, he once came in fifth in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, winning roughly $247,760, which, if anything, places him even higher on the respect-o-meter. And finally, he had the gall to write a bestselling book about it, which is a little like having sex with Paris Hilton and then selling the home videos online. We get it, you scored; do we have to hear about it all day?

So when my incredibly erudite and virile editor tells me that James is in town on a book tour and would be willing to play a little poker, I nearly plotz. Writing about playing poker with a writer who became famous for winning at playing poker after being hired to write about poker—now that's Charlie Kaufman meta. And of course, the requisite ending for the article would be for me to beat Jim at poker.

Like Pilates and metrosexuals, poker's current popularity is a direct result of overwhelming media attention. If it's not the umpteenth showing of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, it's the giant displays of poker manuals at Barnes & Noble and the countless articles by journalists chronicling their failed attempts at playing poker. And no wonder. Poker has become the participatory activity du jour of journalists because it's a sport that even pencil jockeys can play. With all due respect to George Plimpton, I'd rather not put on shoulder pads to see "what it's like" to be tackled by a 300-pound linebacker. But I'm certainly willing to sit at a table and summon up my inner alpha dog over paper cards and clay chips.

Poker also requires a certain level of self-analysis, a quality that writers have in spades. In the recent poker anthology Read 'Em and Weep, David Mamet offers this thought: "Poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import—it will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge. The bad player will not deign to determine what he thinks by watching what he does." It's not enough to be able to guess what cards your opponent is holding; you need to know what he thinks you're holding.

On the day of the big game, James is running late, and my friends and I are waiting nervously for the star of the show. It's four in the afternoon, an odd time to play poker, more so because we're all here in the same apartment on Mercer Street 16 hours before, practicing for an upcoming 64-player tournament organized by yours truly. The fact that I could easily convince 10 otherwise responsible members of society to play an afternoon game of poker suggests, I believe, deep-seated dissatisfaction with our day jobs.

James doesn't so much walk into the room as sneak in, and for a second I don't notice the distinguished older gentleman taking off his coat in the foyer. After exchanging greetings ("Please, call me Jim"), he asks, "So what kind of stakes are we playing for?" Fair question, but a little embarrassing. After all, Jim's regular home game has a $500 buy-in, and every Tuesday he drives from Chicago to northwest Indiana to play an even higher-stakes game. Do I admit that we have been playing $5 tournaments, where the winner takes home at most $50? I decide that's on a need-to-know basis.

"How's $30 a head, top three places are in the money?"

"Sounds fine."

I collect the money, put it in the usual safekeeping spot (on the bookshelf, under the Furby), and we're off.

Now, the game we're playing is called Texas Hold 'Em, or just "hold 'em." Players are each dealt two cards facedown. Three community cards are dealt faceup (in poker lingo, "the flop"), then a fourth card ("the turn"), and then a fifth and final card ("the river"). Players bet in between each round, and they make the best five-card hand using their facedown cards and the faceup community cards. We're playing a "no-limit" tournament, which means a player may at any time put all his chips into the pot. If he loses, he's out of the tournament. The last player remaining with all the chips is the winner.

If I have any chance of being the last one standing, I'm going to have to figure out how to read Jim. Is he a "tight" player—someone who will only play premium starting hands like two aces—or is he "loose," willing to play many hands on the off chance that the flop goes his way? In terms of his betting style, is he "aggressive" or "weak"? In our poker group, the biggest insult is calling someone "tight-weak." Tight-weak players don't win any money, because they're too conservative to steal any pots by betting big, and on the rare occasions they're actually in a hand, the smart players know to fold.

Right now, I'm feeling tight-weak. Partly it's the cards—I'm hoping for face cards or little pairs, but all I get is garbage. But the truth is, I'm trying way too hard not to lose for me to win. On the one hand I make a pair of queens after the flop, my friend David bets 40 in front of me, and I suspect he has kings. At least, he's representing kings. I fold quickly and fiddle with my tape recorder.

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